The first visitor from outer space in the ’50s sci-fi boom is one very curious guy, dropping to Earth in a ship like a diving bell and scaring the bejesus out of Sally Field’s mother. Micro-budgeted space invasion fantasy gets off to a great start, thanks to the filmmaking genius of our old pal Edgar G. Ulmer.
The Man from Planet X
Scream Factory / Shout! Factory
1951 / B&W / 1:37 flat Academy / 71 min. / Street Date July 11, 2017 / 27.99
Starring: Robert Clarke, Margaret Field, Raymond Bond, William Schallert, Roy Engel, David Ormont.
Cinematography: John L. Russell
Film Editor: Fred R. Feitshans, Jr.
Original Music: Charles Koff
Written and Produced by Aubrey Wisberg, Jack Pollexfen
Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer
One of the first features of the 1950s Sci-Fi boom, 1951’s The Man from Planet X set a lot of precedents, cementing the public impression of ‘little green men from Mars’ and making a ton of money for its small-time producers — who then squandered it all on some really undistinguished follow-up fantasies. The show is both progressive and a throwback, a space-age theme presented in a gothic, almost expressionistic mode. Set for purely budgetary reasons on a lonely Scottish island, we need the presence of a car and some advanced technical talk to remind us that we’re not back in the 18th century. The movie is one of the better efforts of the remarkable Edgar G. Ulmer, the famed director of Detour and the King of PRC, one of the lowliest of the Poverty Row studios. When that little empire dried up, Ulmer moved on to independent production wherever he could find it, and did a lot of work in Europe.
The Man from Planet X can be taken seriously for several reasons. It’s technically the first modern film about a visitor from outer space, narrowly beating Howard Hawks’ The Thing from Another World into theaters. Its alien isn’t initially a menace. The screenplay may not be Shakespeare, but it isn’t stupid either — it wisely realizes that the first challenge when humans meet aliens will be the problem of communication. Last year’s sci-fi hit Arrival made establishing communication the prime story element, as experts use linguistic theory to decipher a written language that looks like coffee cup stains. Steven Spielberg used music to talk to his cute little rubber aliens. Ulmer’s opus quite sensibly enlists mathematics to kick the inter-species chit-chat into motion.
Reporter John Lawrence (Robert Clarke) shows up at a remote Scottish island to see what’s so crucial about the latest discovery of Professor Elliot (Raymond Bond), who has detected that a mysterious ‘Planet X’ is headed toward the Earth. John has no sooner met Elliot’s lovely daughter Enid (Margaret Field) and his somewhat disreputable assistant Dr. Mears (William Schallert) than a space ship lands on the adjacent moor, or heath, or whatever. The little man who emerges has a metal face and must breath through a special plumbing apparatus. Communication seems impossible at first, but when the shifty Dr. Mears has a breakthrough, he hides it from Prof. Elliot. In secret, Mears then forcibly imprisons the little alien and threatens him with asphyxiation, all to obtain advanced technological secrets. But Mears doesn’t realize that the visitor is perfectly capable of defending himself — he has a ray gun that turns people into mindless slaves, and thanks to the lack of human hospitality, he doesn’t mind using it.
The Man from Planet X is noted for its look — director Ulmer manages to create an eerily atmospheric location with a few leftover sets, funky backdrops and lots of fog. For this very modest picture, it works. There appear to be only a couple of real outdoors shots, taken on the Culver City hill behind the Hal Roach studio where it was filmed. Stock shots, miniatures and special effects fill in the rest. Ulmer’s talent for design and creative economy works wonders.
Today it’s almost traumatic to see William Schallert’s Mears torment and threaten the alien — if he called in an air strike and nuked the whole planet, we’d certainly understand why. 1951 audiences surely didn’t know what to expect, as the basic story notion was unbroken ground. The alien isn’t intimidating enough to be an instant threat, as would be Gort a few months later. But he’s also an unknown quantity with unknown technology, and we don’t know how he’ll retaliate.
Ulmer manages a mini-military climax that satisfied audiences well enough, although what they really took away was the unforgettable first appearance of the alien in the window of his spaceship. Beautifully built up with a moody tracking shot and Margaret Field’s fine performance, that must have been a shocker. It was still a shocker on TV for us kids in the ’60s, and isn’t half-bad now. Correspondent Wayne Schmidt confessed his personal childhood experience: “I was at the tender age of about seven when I first saw this on Strange Tales of Science Fiction, a weekly program on KHJ Channel 9 in Los Angeles. The window shot first appearance of the alien scared the keeerap out of me! I turned it off and hid in a hallway of our house, where I could keep my eyes on both doors. If Mr. Creepy Spaceman guy made an entrance at one end, I could escape out the other!”
The movie smartly plays its politics both ways, avoiding a topical Cold War angle: to please both Hawks and Peace Doves, Mr. X is both a victim and aggressor. Dr. Mears is suspected as a villain, but his prior offense appears to be greed or dishonesty, not political treachery. Is it supposed to be an accident that, in all the world, the alien has landed his ship less than a mile from where Prof. Elliot is studying his planet? Wouldn’t our scientist heroes realize that it had to be intentional, that the visitor is some kind of emissary from Planet X? Or maybe the alien is a scientist too, and wants to know how Elliot and Mears can possibly think that this particular locale is a good place to do astronomical research. They can’t see through the fog, but they’re going to get a clear look at the stars?
I suppose that Ulmer chose a spaceship that’s described as a ‘diving bell’ because he couldn’t afford to construct an elaborate flying saucer. If we regard the ship as a landing craft like our own LEM, then a small capsule makes perfect sense. Yes, it looks like a large, shiny Christmas tree ornament, but it’s not so outlandish as to elicit chuckles, as an attempt at a flying saucer might have.
Robert Clarke’s reporter-hero is pleasant and stable; this is likely his best movie. A couple of years later actor Richard Carlson would become the movies’ main Sci-Fi hero figure, a starry-eyed scientist. I think this is the only time I’ve seen Margaret Field in a picture, and she’s quite good. Of the full cast, William Schallert makes the one indelible impression — for the next ten years he would be almost ubiquitous in Hollywood’s Science Fiction films.
Scream Factory’s Blu-ray of The Man from Planet X is exactly what I’d hoped for, a sterling transfer of this classic favorite from the dawning days of the first Sci-Fi boom. Scream Factory is itself responsible for this new transfer, taken from a fine grain supplied by MGM, which of course owns the United Artists library. The image is just terrific, vindicating both Ulmer’s craft and the work of John L. Russell, a fast-working cameraman later chosen by Alfred Hitchcock for his TV show and then Psycho. Yes, the feathery, shadowy B&W reveals the painted backdrops and the scale of the miniature Scottish heath (what, for heathens?). The shots of Margaret Field peeking into the spaceship window work every time. Not all Ulmer pictures can claim this kind of visual serendipity, and the mood is so good that we don’t mind the artificial, hand-me-down quality of much of the set dressing.
Tom Weaver says that he had to wait for the 1980s to see the movie on television, whereas here in Los Angeles it played on TV frequently throughout the 1960s. I personally didn’t catch up with it as an adult until the 1990s, when I had access to the vault at MGM Home Video. Gary Teetzel reports: “It first appeared on laserdisc in 1994, although that was thanks to Image, not MGM. The $100 boxed set “United Artists Sci-Fi Matinee” included Red Planet Mars, It! The Terror from Beyond Space and The Monster that Challenged the World. The MGM VHS arrived in 2000, which is pretty late for that format. But it hit DVD relatively early, in 2001, when MGM was releasing the Midnite Movies as single titles and not double features. Much more recently, Timeless/Shout included it on one of their Movies 4 You DVD releases. So it actually has quite a history on home video.”
Scream Factory has done well by not releasing TMFPX bare-bones. They’ve handed responsibility for the extras to author Tom Weaver, who has been researching the genre and this particular picture for over forty years. A couple of Tom’s previous commentaries were for pictures with almost nothing interesting to talk about about, like Invisible Invaders. Ulmer’s little masterpiece has the opposite problem — Tom has too much to say for a film lasting only 71 minutes. His solution on the DVD of Val Lewton’s Bedlam was to blast out a commentary at breakneck speed. For Planet X he solves the problem with two discussion tracks.
Tom’s main commentary #1 solicits help from his regular collaborators David Schecter (on music) and Dr. Robert J. Kiss (on distribution). Tom has great fun telling us how he traced the film’s producers at the beginning of his career as a researcher. He found a trail of articles establishing that Wisberg and Pollexfen always meant to take advantage of Howard Hawks’ highly-promoted upcoming The Thing — their screenplay even refers to the midget from planet widget as a ‘thing.’ Tom documents some of the crazier Flying Saucer buzz that was floating around at the time, and happily doesn’t endorse the belief as an alternative fact. He also uncovers the rather queasy origin of the alien’s ray gun prop – it’s a medical device that . . . on second thought, it’s worth waiting for Tom to explain it. In hindsight, you’d think everyone and their poodle would have been rushing to make movies about Little Green Men from Mars. But media- savvy marketers didn’t run the biz back then. If they did, John Ford might have had to film attractions with titles like, “Lincoln Logs: The Movie!”
In addition to Schecter and Kiss’s scholarly input, Weaver cedes a few minutes to director Joe Dante, who expresses his affection for the show and recounts his experience recreating the man from Planet X for his movie Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003), as one of the space visitors being housed at ‘Area 52.’ The recording for Dante’s audio section is rather strange — his voice gets louder and then softer, for some reason.
The second commentary begins with an enthusiastic film analysis by Gary D. Rhodes, an author who has written about Edgar G. Ulmer’s films. Rhodes then hands the second commentary over to a new interview I conducted with Arianné Ulmer Cipes, the director’s daughter, on February 24 of this year. Ulmer passed away in 1972, just as serious genre critics were beginning to discover and popularize the work of unheralded artistic auteurs. If Peter Bogdanovich hadn’t interviewed him in just the nick of time, Edgar might have remained the way Andrew Sarris described him, a ‘minor glory of the cinema’ yet nothing more than an amusing sidebar attraction. Arianné has devoted much of the last 25 years to locating Ulmer’s many films and seeing that his legacy isn’t left by the wayside.
Arianné had only a few anecdotes to offer about The Man from Planet X, as she was only 13 when it was filmed. We instead talk about her father’s working and filming styles, his relationship with his wife & collaborator Shirley Ulmer, and the way her family functioned as ‘movie gypsies,’ traveling to Europe and Mexico to make movies. I then inquired about Arianné’s own career in distribution and film dubbing, and working with her second husband Jay Cipes, who among other impressive achievements was a big wheel at Technicolor. The biographical interview isn’t 100% about Planet X or even Edgar Ulmer, but I think it’s great for her story to get out. She tells us that Planet X was actually put together by an agent-packager named Ilse Lahn, who had worked with Ulmer back in Germany, under Max Reinhardt.
The trailer included in the package is a good reminder of how the picture looked on DVD. A still and advertising montage (4.5 minutes) seemingly displays MGM’s entire photo file, along with a few choice collector’s items from Tom Weaver’s collection. The original one-sheet for The Man from Planet X is one of the most beautiful of 1950s science fiction posters — it’s represented on the disc cover. The newspaper-formatted original press book does not appear, however; I used MGM’s file copy as a DVD Savant prop for my old DVDtalk Review Index Page.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Man from Planet X Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Very Good
Supplements: Commentary by Tom Weaver, David Schecter, Dr. Robert J. Kiss, Joe Dante; Second commentary with Gary D. Rhodes, plus an interview with Arianné Ulmer Cipes; trailer, Image gallery.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 15, 2017
Here’s Joe Dante on Ulmer’s one-of-a-kind sci-fi:
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson